Premiere heavyweight fights used to be the cat's pajamas. I don't know if that fascination carried over from boxing or if it was the basic appeal of big dudes with big muscles throwing big punches and landing big knockouts in big fights. Then the current seemed to shift -- modern day fans found their appetite better sated by the simmering pace and vivacious action of the lighter-weight fighters than by the unkempt technique of the plodding leviathans. Yesteryear's adoration of heavyweights grew to be considered a bit atavistic.
I'm curious if that phenomenon will come full circle, as our sport has been blessed with a new generation of heavyweights. They're still big -- in some cases even bigger than before -- but the overall level of athleticism, technique and skill is at an all-time high. UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is a polished striker and wrestler who's set a new standard for heavyweight fight pace. Junior dos Santos delivers the same "big" knockouts, but does so with finely honed boxing technique. Daniel Cormier is an Olympic wrestler with shocking speed and dexterity, especially for a beer-keg-shaped human. It's possible that mid-decade standouts like Frank Mir or Pride FC's Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira were the harbingers of this heightened plateau of heavyweight martial artists.
Even though the bar has been raised overall, Alistair Overeem and Travis Browne are still unique heavyweights, and they're set to collide in the co-main slot of Saturday's UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen event.
Three clacks on a keyboard convey why Alistair Overeem (36-12) is an atypical heavyweight: K-1. MMA fighters are constantly compared to purists of individual martial arts. "The best MMA strikers wouldn't stand a chance in the ring against any top boxers" was -- and to some extent, still is -- a sentiment commonly expressed. Ironically, we've all heard the same arguments about kickboxing. "K-1 level striking" became the highest praise and most laudable honor that could be bestowed upon MMA's finest stand-up fighters, but it was still thought to be a wild stretch of the imagination and was received with haughty chuckles. The idea that an MMA fighter could wield the technical skill even approaching that of a top kickboxer just seemed like a fantasy.
That stubborn mentality was forced into extinction when Overeem won the K-1 World Grand Prix in 2010. Regardless of how the rest of his career unfolds, he'll be a historical icon and legend for that reason alone. Earlier that year, "The Demolition Man," who'd become the inaugural Strikeforce heavyweight champion in 2007, had returned to the completely reshaped organization and defended his title with a ruthless throttling of Brett Rogers. A few weeks after winning the K-1 title, Overeem became DREAM's inaugural heavyweight champion, littering his fireplace mantle with a very rare and prestigious collection of belts within the span of a single year.
Travis "Hapa" Browne (14-1) doesn't have the credentials of Overeem in MMA or kickboxing. He's quite the opposite, having no lofty titles or accomplishments, but oodles of potential -- and that's what makes him special. Browne has only been training MMA for around five years, and he took his first pro fight in 2009. That might not resonate with some like it should. Let's just say you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a list of green fighters who train MMA for roughly a year, spend the next year accruing a pristine 9-0 record (yes, that's 9 fights in 12 months), finish eight of those nine wins, and then foray into the sport's apex promotion for the next three years and continue having success. Seriously ... take a second to realize how extraordinarily respectable that is.
Beyond his freakish progression, the 6'7" Browne glides around the cage with the grace and agility of a middleweight. He's also shown competency as a striker, wrestler and submission grappler. Browne's only stain on the carpet is a TKO loss to contender Antonio Silva wherein "Hapa" blew out his knee with the first high kick he threw, though he also fought to a unanimous draw with Cheick Kongo (who was docked a point for repeated shorts-grabbing).
Both Browne and Overeem are well-versed in submission grappling and wrestling, but their swagger really oozes in the striking game. That's what this fight seems to boil down to -- either has the ability to implement takedowns and pursue submissions, yet those scales seem pretty evenly balanced. The striking interplay is what should dictate this match and it's also what the fans are clamoring to see.
Few heavyweights would be favored to take out Overeem based on his K-1 laurels alone. His dramatic TKO loss to a resurgent Antonio Silva is fresh on everyone's mind, but let's not forget that Overeem was giving "Bigfoot" the business and handily out-striking him until the shocking salvo that turned things around transpired. Style wise, Overeem does not conduct himself like a traditional kickboxing specialist: instead of zipping around with clever angles and snapping off quick and compact combinations, he crouches down and stalks his opponent with the unnerving voracity of a lion about to pounce on his prey.
Overeem's signature left hook and leaping left knee alone account for the vast majority of his TKO stoppages. When they weren't the actual tools that finished the job, some semblance of either menacing technique often triggered the final sequence. Typically, Overeem will glue both hands to his chin, square off his stance, lower his level and start creeping forward like a coiled spring. Despite his lengthy proportions, his venom is usually delivered in close quarters. There aren't many probing or feel-out strikes from Alistair either -- he stays loaded up and only chambers off blows that are intended to inflict great bodily harm.
That makes it a bit odd that Browne will be tasked with relying on angles and circling with his footwork in order to stay out of Overeem's rugged wheelhouse. His best bet is to adopt the finesse of a top kickboxer, as the top kickboxer he's facing is light on artful finesse and heavy on savage ferocity. Since the timeless combat sports analogy of "box the brawler, brawl the boxer" rings true here, Browne is forced into the role of the boxer: the competitor who's governed by intelligence, motion and effective implementation of kickboxing fundamentals ... against the most accredited kickboxing champion in MMA.
Some of Browne's characteristics actually jive with that strategy quite well, namely his athleticism and agility, which will hugely complement the emphasis on his footwork and movement. There are few heavyweights who move as well as or better than Browne, but none that are as big and tall. This adds the luxury of reach and range to Browne's dexterous movement, which the smaller and shorter heavies just don't have. The final ingredients of Browne's unusual formula are the thunderous power of his punches and kicks (10 of 14 wins by TKO) and the quickness with which they're uncorked.
Make no mistake about it -- Travis Browne brings some serious weapons to the table. And it's not easy to line up training partners who can mimic his height, reach, athleticism, agility and overall package of skills. On top of all that, and in stark contrast to his lofty accomplishments in the striking arts, nothing will erase the substantial amount of TKO losses on Overeem's record (7 of 12). Some think his chin is fragile, others think he gets careless and overconfident and some feel any fighter who stands toe-to-toe and swings for the fences is simply bound to get caught against elite opposition. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Browne has the power and striking acumen to find Overeem's chin as others have in the past.
Though there's not a substantial edge for Browne in wrestling or submissions, Overeem will be perfectly content to stand and trade all night, so the act of pursuing takedowns --regardless of efficacy -- will keep Overeem guessing, slow down the fight's pace and make him hesitant to plant his feet and hurl power shots. If he does adopt that route, he must be wary of Overeem's guillotine and protect his neck vigilantly while changing levels and penetrating.
Overeem is not limited to phone-booth range and does wield kicks from out on the fringe that are almost as nasty as his infighting, but they're sparsely implemented. Browne has exhibited rangy front kicks, roundhouse kicks (which are unlatched with no almost no forewarning), low kicks and even some jumping high kicks. It's worth reiterating that his knee was damaged in the Bigfoot fight while exercising kicks from outside, so he might be a little leery to make them a centerpiece against Overeem.
I think Browne has it in him to pull off that strategy. Other than avoiding standing right in front of Overeem and trading or relying on his agility and diversity, I'm not sure what options are out there for Browne -- with the exception of timing a massive punch, which any fighter in any fight has the chance to do. I applaud Browne for taking a harder route and developing his entire game, but I see this as a case of a fighter who's really good at everything being forced to deal with a specialist in his best area.
My Prediction: Alistair Overeem by TKO.